The new documentary Gerrymandering tackles one of the least sexy aspects of the modern political age.
It’s easy to run wild with intern affairs and other office misdeeds, but redrawing voting districts is only appealing to the wonkiest of political wonks. Even radio talk show hosts, who demand a constant flow of controversial topics, often ignore gerrymandering.
That’s a grievous error, the film says, since the practice helps ensure politicians aren’t held fully accountable for their votes and often makes a mockery of the democratic process. It still doesn’t make for an arresting documentary feature, at least in the earnest hands of director Jeff Reichert.
The film offers Gerrymandering 101 for the uninitiated, describing how population shifts and voter reapportionment have been the norm for American politicians. Incumbents often draw the most exaggerated shapes imaginable to keep out a constituency they can’t win over, or divide up a challenger’s district into easily defeated segments.
Redistricting can be done along racial and partisan lines, and the finished product can be so narrow as to only include the middle of a particular street. Presidents starting with John F. Kennedy through Barack Obama have tried drawing attention to gerrymandering, but few could boast tangible results.
“This form of voter discrimination must end,” declared President George H. W. Bush, while one talking head calls the practice “the most effective way of manipulating elections short of outright fraud.”
Yet other Western countries, like England, have taken steps to reform the practice and take some of the political maneuvering out of it.
“Gerrymandering is America’s best-kept secret,” we’re told.
The film is so nonpartisan it aches. For every Democrat slapped with the gerrymandering label, there’s a Republican hot on his or her heels, and political cheap shots are left to other firebrand docs.
And the talking head roll call affirms the film’s bipartisan meme, spreading the R and D labels to include the likes of Howard Dean and Ed Rollins and former Calif. Governors Gray Davis and Pete Wilson.
The narrative through line involves Kathay Feng with California Common Cause, and her passionate attempt to help pass Proposition 11 in the Golden State.
The measure would curb the redistricting laws and, its proponents hoped, alleviate some of the dirty politics within the state. Vocal Proposition 11 supporter Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen both in news clips and in interview segments bolstering the cause.
Feng decided to take action after receiving a call from a candidate telling her, “You’re not gonna put another [expletive] Asian resident in my district.”
It’s a rare jolt of excitement in an otherwise sobering feature, and even Schwarzenegger‘s fading star power offers little illumination.
Gerrymandering tries to spotlight praise-worthy politicians who wouldn’t mind if the practice went the way of the eight-track tape, but the film doesn’t allow them enough screen time for them to matter.
We’re left with the documentary standby — the “man on the street” interviews — which reveals just how little known “gerrymandering” is among the masses.
The biggest example of redistricting chaos comes in recalling the battle between Texas legislators over plans by Tom Delay to reshape the map in the Republican’s favor. It’s the juiciest story in recent gerrymandering history, but the film spends far too much time with the event’s tiniest details. Yes, the Democrats fled for the cozy confines of a Holiday Inn, but a sharper documentary would burrow into more pertinent findings.
Gerrymandering seems to be under control in Iowa, according to the film. The state enacted a system involving a three-person team to lord over any redistricting requirements. But Iowa’s lack of diversity doesn’t give other states enough of a template to follow, the film warns.
“No matter which way you slice Iowa, you get Iowa,” one expert says. It‘s a hint that the film has little interest in pursuing why particular groups vote in near unison on Election Day.
Gerrymandering ultimately pines for a less fractured republic, one where the far left and far right take their cues from Moderate Nation. It’s something quite rare to see in a genre where liberal giants like Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Michael Moore roam with impunity. It also renders the film a tad dull, and Reichert isn’t able to invest the topic with the mixture of razzle dazzle and emotion to overcome that sad fact.
That makes the film’s curt running time — 77 minutes — and occasional animated snippets all the more welcome. Watching Gerrymandering might feel like a scholastic homework assignment, but it’s important to get the topic on the minds of voters today — and tomorrow.